29 February 2016

Addressibility: Called by Name to be that we Might Call Others by Name to be

[[Hi Sister, could you say a little more about what you call "addressibility" and the way that refers to what it means to be made in the image of God? I have never heard this before and don't know how to think about it. I don't know who Gerhard Ebeling is. Thank you!]]

Sure, I would be happy to say a little more about it. I have probably written about this before in posts about the invocation to the Lord's Prayer. It is critical to the notion of prayer, for instance, that it is understood in terms of the capacity to address God by name and to be addressed by name ourselves. When we address another by name or are addressed by name ourselves it implies giving one or being given a personal place to stand in the life of the other. Without this act of address we might impinge on another in a less than truly personal way with our physical presence, but we do not have a personal place to stand in their lives. Address by name empowers and summons to personal presence. It is an implicit promise to allow the one addressed to be themselves and more, to reveal themselves in whatever terms they may do. Since names include and transcend any characteristic or collection of characteristics a name symbolizes the indefinable mystery of the person and it was this that Semitic peoples especially saw and reflected in their Scriptures.

To call upon God by name as Abba, is not to describe God as fatherly (though it may also do this); it is to give God a place in our lives which respects God's mystery and allows (him/her) to reveal (him/herself) on God's own terms. In last Sunday's first reading God reveals his name as "I will be who I will be" (often translated as I am who am despite this lacking the dynamism of the original). This Name captures both God's indefinability or mystery and the dynamic of revelation on one's own terms.   Likewise, to call upon God by name is to enter into a covenant relationship where God calls us by name as well and therefore allows that loving act of address to summon us to be our truest selves. To be called by name is to have the entire mystery of our personhood addressed, not just the characteristics which make us successful in the world around us, not just our strengths and virtues, not even just our weaknesses and sins. It is the way God creates, loves, and shows mercy --- and it is  the way we share in that power. (It is no small matter that God is portrayed as entrusting us with the naming of the animals in the Genesis account of creation.) I don't think other beings share in this capacity to name, call by name (or tragically and sinfully, to betray this capacity and to distort or otherwise deprive others of a name or the gift of being called by name). It is unique to us as imago dei.

Again, name symbolizes the WHOLE person who is always more than the sum of her parts and invites her to be her truest self. When God calls us by name to be it is a creative act. It recognizes and even mobilizes the entire mystery of the person in a way no other word does. When we act similarly it is similarly creative; it gives others a place to stand in community with us which the person cannot create herself. Again, to call another by name is to constitute them in freedom not least because it extends membership in a human community to them, a necessary condition of possibility of human growth and fulfillment. It is an act of profound compassion, perhaps the highest we can exercise.

I would argue that the basic truths of our faith can be understood to some extent, either directly or indirectly, in terms of this act of address and the empowering of addressibility. Addressibility and the spoken Word of address is a key to understanding creation, creatio continua, redemption and reconciliation,  the nature of mercy, revelation, and justice because all of these hinge upon the dynamics involved in and symbolized by being called and calling upon another by name to be. For instance the imperative that we transform aliens into neighbors literally depends upon this dynamic.  It is a task we are called to undertake as part of the ministry of reconciliation. The notion that Christ calls us friends not servants reflects this same dynamic since we address friends differently and with a different level of intimacy than we do servants.

When I wrote the piece you are asking about (cf., Embracing a Surpassing Righteousness) I had used parts of it as a reflection for a Communion service. One member of the assembly was reminded of a song she knew and sang it for me afterwards. I think it captures perfectly what I have described here --- with the addition of the great yearning we each have to be called by name and made true by God --- or, to a more limited extent, by anyone else who might do similarly.

Please call me by my true name,
Please call me by my true name,
That I may wake up,
wake up,
And the doors of my heart can open wide, the doors of compassion.
The doors of compassion.

P.S., Gerhard Ebeling is a Lutheran systematic theologian. Besides writing about the nature of faith and a full length commentary on Galatians, one of the areas in which he specializes is that of theological linguistics. His focus on the Word and on the human capacity for Word is very powerful. His small book of nine sermons on the Lord's Prayer with a profound insight into the nature of the invocation is wonderful and very readable. His Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language is equally profound --- though I wouldn't suggest this for the casual reader! Several of Ebeling's other books focus similarly on Word and on Proclamation. God and Word is a small and precious gem of a book for theologians and non-theologians alike. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with him or his work beyond the 1970's-80's.